On May 24 2007, a tank belonging to the enterprise Vest Tank in Sløvåg municipality exploded. The explosion generated an intense sulphurous stench, which has caused illness among the local population ever since.
Brennpunkt started investigating this case immediately after the explosion. We wished to find out what kind of operations led to the accident.
Tonight’s programme will provide you with an insight into the kind of shady business the west coast village found itself involved in.
Through agreements with major foreign operators, the enterprise Vest Tank’s tank facility in Sløvåg became an important link in an international production of, and trade with, extremely low quality gasoline.
The final product was of such poor quality that it was illegal to sell in Europe. Instead, this bad gasoline was shipped to West Africa.
Norwegian authorities proved to be completely unaware of these activities. In the programme, we illustrate how the controlling institutions which could have disclosed and put an end to these operations, actually do not function at all.
In 2006, Vest Tank entered into an intention agreement with one of the world’s largest commodity traders, Trafigura.
Vest Tank was requested to desulphurize so-called coker gasoline;
a residue product from oil refining.
The owner of Vest Tank, Mr. Trond Emblem, claims that no contract was signed.
However, during the autumn of 2006, ships started docking in Sløvåg.
Emblem states that this was no pilot project, but simply a part of the ordinary Vest Tank activities.
Trafigura traded with sulphurous coker gasoline with a low octane level, originating in Mexico. The purpose of the trade was to cleanse this waste product in order to render it saleable as automobile fuel.
In the course of 2006 and 2007, Trafigura dispatched a total of 150.000 tons of coker gasoline, divided into 6 shipments.
Vest Tank pumped coker gasoline into its tanks, where they added caustic soda and water to wash away the sulphur, before the cargo was once more loaded into the ship.
At Vest Tank, large quantities of sulphur encapsuled in caustic soda were left behind.
In addition, coker gasoline residues which were not sufficiently sweetened, remained with the company.
Permission not granted
The enterprise Vest Tank was obliged to apply to the Directorate for Civil Protection and Emergency Planning (DSB) for license to store these substances in their tanks. But at least for one of the tanks, they had no such license.
The Norwegian Pollution Control Authority (SFT) claim they have never authorized these operations. Vest Tank disputes this; they refer to the fact that they informed SFT about the project. In their opinion, SFT granted them permission by e-mail and over the telephone to carry out their activities.
After the sweetening in Sløvåg, five of the six ships headed for the seaport town of Paldiski in Estonia.
In Paldiski, they discharged their cargoes at the terminal of the oil company Alexela, a company partly owned by Trafigura. Incidentally, Alexela bought up Vest Tank in Sløvåg after the explosion.
In Paldiski, the cargo was unloaded, and the Estonian customs service relate that a substance designed to increase the octane level is mixed into the gasoline.
The unusable residue product coker gasoline had now turned into low quality gasoline.
The Estonian customs state that the quality is so low, it renders it illegal to sell in Europe.
The gasoline is reloaded on board a ship, then dispatched to West Africa.
In Europe, the maximum approved sulphur level in gasoline is 50 ppm. In West Africa, 5000 ppm is the approved limit.
These were the main activities Vest Tank had established in Sløvåg. Consequently, the sweetening of coker gasoline generated a steady flow of hazardous waste, and in addition, the tank facility accepted waste for processing.
In the documentary “Dirty Cargo”, we bring you the story of all in all eight ships arriving in Sløvåg during the year before the facility exploded.
Two of the ships docking in Sløvåg did not sweeten gasoline. The first of these was Probo Emu. She carried the same kind of waste that her sister ship Probo Koala delivered in the Ivory Coast.
Eight ships arrived in Sløvåg
Probo Emu carries this waste in her slop tanks. Slop is wastewater with oil residue left over
after the cleaning of the oil tanks of a large ship. This waste is normally easily handled.
In Vest Tank‘s opinion, they acted in good faith when they accepted this waste. They were assured by Trafigura that this was slop; wastewater from the operation of the ship. It appears that instead this was waste from the sweetening of coker gasoline on board the ship.
The other ship was Ottavia, which loaded cargo in Sløvåg. When she arrived, she was nearly fully loaded with high quality gasoline purchased by Trafigura in England.
In Sløvåg, she collected 5400 tons of waste residue from the process of desulphurization of coker gasoline.
We have seen documents proving that this waste was mixed with the high quality gasoline on board. Subsequently, Ottavia sailed for West Africa.
Throughout a period of nearly a year, these companies carried out their activities right in the face of Norwegian authorities. Neither the Norwegian Pollution Control Authority, the Coastal Administration, the Customs Service, nor the Directorate for Civil Protection and Emergency Planning (DSB) inspected the operations.
On May 24, Tank 3 exploded. The reason was a Vest Tank blunder. They intended to get rid of caustic material and sulphur left at the bottom of the tank.
By pumping in hydrochloric acid, the waste was supposed to be transformed into salt and water. Instead, a carbon filter was ignited, and the tank blew up.
The sulphur contained in all the ship cargoes was released,
causing continuous illness among the local inhabitants.